The Woman in Black
Director: James Watkins / Screenplay: Jane Goldman (from novel by Susan Hill) / Editing: Jon Harris / DP: Tim Maurice-Jones / Music: Marco Beltrami
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe / Roger Allam / Ciarán Hinds / Victor McGuire / Janet McTeer / Liz White / Daniel Cerquiera / Cathy Sera
Scooby Doo, where are you..?
Here’s a rhetorical question few of us have ever had to consider: What’s the first thing you choose to do, after ending a successful run of nine films in one of the most beloved (and financially successful) fantasy franchises ever made? Well, if you’re Daniel Radcliffe (‘DR’) and the franchise in question is Harry Potter, then you do the obvious thing and tackle something in a similar vein, but with more of an ‘adult’ take…
The Woman In Black, Susan Hill’s acclaimed Gothic horror novel from 1982 fits the bill, yet before the first fog machine was rented, its adaptation had to jump through a few hoops. First and foremost, ‘Black is a production of the revived – and revered – Hammer studio. In 2007, the studio’s brand and back-catalogue of nearly 300 classic horror titles was acquired by new investors intent on reviving its fortunes and ‘Black was the fifth release in its new incarnation. With the rights to Hill’s novel acquired, the task of writing an adaptation for the screen fell to Jane Goldman. An experienced, proven screenwriter with an eclectic array of credits from Kick Ass (2010) to Stardust (2007), Goldman was a solid choice to adapt Hill’s modern classic.
For the directing gig, the Producers went with young British director James Watkins, who at that point had directed (and wrote) just one feature beforehand: the grimy revenge horror Eden Lake (2008). Still, a horror is a horror is a horror, right? With such promising talent attached, what could go wrong?
DR was attracted to the lead role of Arthur Kipps, because of assurances made by Watkins that the script would be ‘in a modern idiom’ and thus free of ‘period stuffiness’; I can see the appeal. Here was a chance to be seen as a risk-taker; to play with established idiom, genre and form, whilst playing it safe with an otherwise formulaic ghost story, that doesn’t stray too far from Potter. Trouble is, as we shall see, there’s a fine line in this approach, in which if too many anachronisms of language and behaviour are introduced, the resulting production risks losing the credibility of its period setting. At that point, one wonders why the Producers didn’t just update the whole thing and just use Hill’s text as a mere starting point: it’s a view I found myself taking with increasing frequency as this played out.
It all begins with a promising sequence, as a trio of sisters playing together in an attic room suddenly choose to fall from its windows as-one; Watkins wisely choosing to leave his camera in the room, focussed on the empty, open windows. When we hear the snatches of anguished screams from their mother, our own imaginations take-over the heavy lifting, which is half the fun in a genre movie such as this. It reminds me of a piece of advice I heard years ago, when mounting a piece for radio: ‘The pictures in your head are always better. And cheaper.’ At least here, Watkins recognises the point; that they just end their lives in this unexplained, arbitrary fashion, makes for a shocking opening statement.
Unfortunately, for this viewer at least, that impact melts away the moment DR appears on-screen, for he’s patently mis-cast here. Throughout the entire picture, he’s asking us to believe that he’s a recently widowed father, to a son of about four or five.
NO. Not buying it, for not only does DR look too young to have already endured such misery with nary a worry-line or any hint of of sadness etched into his puppy-dog features, but that would’ve had him married at, what, sixteen? Seventeen? Again, no. DR is here because of his ability to draw an audience and nothing more. If the Producers had set-out from the beginning to tell an authentic, Gothic ghost story on its own merits, they would’ve cast an older actor with a more lived-in face, who’s performance range (informed by life experience) might better convey the chills to come. Alas, the realities of film-production come hard to accept. Lacking the financial clout to go down that route alone, Hammer has to rely on international partners for its production slate to be green-lit. ‘Stunt-casting’ DR as the lead in ‘Black solves that problem, by showcasing a globally-recognised movie star that’ll guarantee business, irrespective of his suitability for the part.
Back to the film then and Kipps’ young son has drawn a picture for his father, showing them happily reunited at the end of the week: it seems Kipps senior has to go away on business… Then director Watkins shows us an overdue invoice, that Kipps tucks shamefully into his briefcase: Money’s too tight to mention. Whatever he’s been asked to do, Kipps is doing it to pay the bills… The final element in a compressed, busy sequence is an exchange with the boy’s Nanny, during which Kipps is overly informal and even uses the word ‘okay’ (oh, and he’s so hard-up, that he can still afford a Nanny?).
Err, right. So this is Goldman’s interpretation then, rather than a straight adaptation? I’ve already touched on why this approach was taken, but I’ll expand upon it now. You see, if we follow the logic implied at the casting of DR, we end up in a situation where the bulk of the film’s expanded audience are likely to be female ‘tweens’ who’ve followed DR’s career in parallel with their own lives & experiences. Chances are, they’ll lack a QA ‘filter’ for period-correctness, having not seen many films (or much TV, for that matter) in which such conventions are even required, let alone adhered to. Their references are resolutely contemporary and, while in some circumstances such casuality is acceptable, if not expected, Hill’s source novel is resolutely of a late Victorian / early Edwardian period and for viewers such as myself, ‘schooled-in-the-rules’ as it were, this is slipshod pandering to a lower common denominator…
DR’s later output has shown a willingness to embrace ‘adult’ themes and tone (Swiss Army Man (2016), for example) so it’s a pity that it didn’t start with his first movie after Potter, rather than this cynical, timid piece of fan service.
As if to highlight DR’s shortcomings in the role, witness Roger Allam as his boss, Mr Bentley. Allam’s coasting here, surfing over the by-the-numbers script with no apparent effort, yet delivering a level of genuine threat & malice as he instructs Kipps to visit ‘Eel Marsh House’, to inspect the papers of a newly deceased client; plainly this is Kipps’ last chance to prove himself: ‘We’re a law firm, not a charity!’ chides Bentley; Allam oozing his casual mastery of the material.
On the train, Kipps has the good fortune – for once – to find himself sat opposite Ciarán Hinds as Mr Daily. A wonderful character player, who’s acting choices always enhance everything I’ve seen him in, Hinds’ Mr Daily is something of a local gent with opinions about the supernatural and the house in particular: what a stunning coincidence that is… What’s more, when the train pulls-in to Dunny-on-the-Wold or whatever Godforsaken hole is representing ‘The North’, it’s chucking down with rain and guess who’s got a Rolls-Royce and will be ‘passing by’ the pub, in which our hero is staying?
Here’s the second howling anachronism I’ve noticed: Mr Daily’s Roller. Not only is it of a later period than the book’s setting (a Silver Ghost of about 1910 vintage, if you’re interested) but Daily introduces it thus: ‘First one in the county. Still scares the locals.’
No, no, NO! Either the original book specified an actual early motor-car from the late 1880’s (some thirty-odd years earlier) that would justify the dialogue, or Ms Goldman used the line but, unable to find a car that old, the Producers just used something that looked ‘vaguely vintage’ in the hope no-one would care: but that’s like using a Ford Sierra or, better yet, a thirty-year old Cortina to illustrate a contemporary vehicle! It’s lazy and just wrong. On the other hand, if the car was supposed to be a Roller, then the smart thing to have done, would’ve been to acknowledge that in the text, i.e. ‘It’s the first Rolls in the county…’ As photographed, it’s an example of the laziness – the lack of rigour – in this film’s production design.
Wouldn’t you know it, but the room he’s given, by a plainly apprehensive landlady, is the very attic from which the girls jumped, all those sentences ago… The next day, Kipps meets with the Estate’s solicitor, who’s keen to pack him back off to London with a neat bundle of papers and no questions asked: but thanks to Mr Bentley, Kipps now has skin in the game, so pays his carriage driver (the admirably terse Keckwick) to take him to the house. Cue: a sweeping aerial shot of his waggon & horses making its way over a real causeway (in Essex) towards a fictitious island and Eel Marsh House…
The house’s interior saw the lion’s share of this production’s budget and it shows (though there was still some left over to pay for the crane & fog machine and boy, did they get their money’s worth out of THEM). This custom-built set is in the classic Gothic style with its dark wood panelling and dusty portraits lining the grand staircase. In fact, it’s so perfect that it threatens to tip over into Scooby-Doo territory; as Kipps passes those portraits, I half-expected all their eyes to swivel in his direction… As he explores, dragging an ever-expanding collection of papers back to his commandeered desk, so the ghost(s) of the place begin to reveal themselves.
There’s the usual panoply of jump-cuts, pull-focuses, haunted faces staring out of windows, a bevy of solemn gravestones and it’s all underpinned with a horde of screeches and wails from Marco Beltami’s unremarkable, though effective score. At this point, I began to be swayed by DR’s acting: he’s good at playing scared, although he’d had to do a lot of that in Potter and I suppose, by this point, he was a dab hand. Unburdened by the emotional weight of his character’s past, DR could exist in the moment and be a haunted young man in a strange place.
Back in the village of the Soon-to-be-Damned, a young girl dies after an accidental poisoning and Kipps is being blamed for it: but once again, Mr Daily’s on-hand to rescue him, offering dinner and a bed for the night. Great! The only downside, is that he has to witness the Madness of Mrs Daily… A winning, gloriously bonkers performance from Janet McTeer, sees Mrs Daily channelling her dead son, through the medium of a steak knife and a richly-lacquered dining table. The resulting image might not win a round of Pictionary, but it’s meaning is clear: Run For Your Life!
Not that Kipps is so easily deterred and so, perhaps reassured by a resolutely sceptical Mr Daily, he returns to the house to complete his investigations. Then he gradually pieces together what happened there and, with Daily’s help, he seeks to reunite those who are lost… It’s literally a bit muddy at times; a little ‘Tab A into Slot B’, in-case you wondered: and that’s just Watkins’ handling of narrative…
There’s one section where Kipps believes there to be something lurking behind a screen in a bedroom, but Watkins’ isn’t content (or confident enough) to just show him reacting, as he then sets-up a shot showing us the very nothing for ourselves! Surely a confident nod from Kipps would’ve telegraphed the emptiness as effectively? It’s as though he directed the opening sequence supported by training wheels and had them removed thereafter, to leave him wobbling through the shoot like an unsupported six year old…
Oh, and then it ends… Except it doesn’t; not really.
The original ending, as filmed, was deemed too ‘bleak’ by test audiences (i.e. tweens & teens) so was hastily re-shot to give a sense of a ‘Happy Ever After’ for Kipps and son. Frankly, I think DR should’ve stuck to his guns: what better way to redeem himself, than with an ending that would set the seal on Potter and let his fans get a flavour of what lay ahead? About the only person to come out of this covered in any kind of glory, was DP Tim Maurice-Jones, who’s lighting & photography choices were spot-on, as far as tone and genre were concerned; at least someone who appeared to know what they were doing appeared to give a damn…
Naturally, this made money for Hammer, so what do I know? Unsurprisingly, the studio mounted a sequel a few years later, but DR wisely passed. Maybe, with the passage of time, he’d come to see this farrago for the unsubtle tosh it always was? Pity neither he – or his management – couldn’t see the wood for the trees when it came to this…
Nicholas loved to sketch too. He still does. He wants to draw you a picture.